New technologies for identifying and tracing weapons

  1. Last updated on
A 'free from explosive', a package that contains explosives, as a remnant of submunitions photographed at close range in wet forest area

A 'free from explosive' - an empty package which has contained explosives - as a remnant of submunitions (= part of a larger weapon) photographed at close range in wet forest area with the Tech4Tracing system.

Weapons and ammunition can be used in a wide variety of situations, including wars, terrorism and criminal activities. In order to detect their abuses they must be identified and their route traced. Technology and artificial intelligence can be very useful here as shown by the Tech 4 Tracing (T4T) NGO, supported by the FPS Foreign Affairs.

Tracing illegal weapons allows for a better understanding of arms diversion circuits, while identifying the traffickers and the methods they use. Arms are traditionally traced using the serial numbers engraved on a weapon. Once an illegal weapon is found, whether on a battlefield or in the possession of criminal or terrorist groups, law enforcement contacts the original manufacturer to try and trace that weapon from its first owner to its diversion, i.e. the point at which the weapon became illegal.

This is a tedious process that involves being in possession of the weapon in question (or very good photographs), identifying it correctly and starting a long administrative process that is not always successful. Tracing depends on the willingness of States to respond to requests and on good record keeping for weapons that are sometimes very old.

Video streams

Alongside these very unsophisticated methods, new technologies could help us identify weapons and ammunition in video streams. In turn, this could provide a better understanding of the diversion circuits or even the use of certain weapons in given locations. Indeed, modern conflicts are filmed profusely, as demonstrated in Syria and Ukraine on a daily basis.

However, it is impossible for human beings to comb through all such videos posted on social media to identify certain types of weapons or ammunition used. So, could artificial intelligence do this for us? This is the subject on which T4T, an NGO promoted by the FPS Foreign Affairs in various international forums, is working. T4T proposes bringing together two worlds that do not frequently communicate with each other, those of gun control and new technologies.

A 3D image

Before we can train an artificial intelligence to recognise objects in photos or video streams, we need thousands of photos presenting the object from all angles, in varying light conditions and types of environment which is difficult to find in terms of specific ammunition. To overcome this problem, T4T has reproduced a 3D image from an inert submunition, photographed from all angles and in all possible atmospheric conditions and types of environment.

An artificial intelligence specialised in extracting information from images can then be trained to recognise these munitions in videos/photos from real conflicts. This process can be reproduced from photographs for all weapons or ammunition, preferably deactivated.

Numerous applications

Once the artificial intelligence has been trained, thousands of videos can be collected from social media using scraping tools and then analysed and, in the case that a specific weapon or ammunition is identified, geo-located and time tagged.

What are the applications for this tool? There are in fact many. The identified video footage can be used as evidence in courts and tribunals where the identified weapons are prohibited weapons, such as submunitions, or used under conditions contrary to the laws of war, for example, in war crimes cases. Areas contaminated by unexploded ordnance, mines or submunitions can be mapped for future clearance.

Evidence of a country's involvement in a conflict can be gathered through the identification of weapons or munitions which only that country possesses. This type of technology can also help monitor the implementation of a ceasefire or verify the enforcement of an arms embargo. Criminal justice applications are also possible, including the identification of casings left at crime scenes.

Our FPS support

T4T first presented its technology at a side event at the United Nations, sponsored by Belgium and Mexico in June 2022. The FPS Foreign Affairs then invited T4T to present its progress at European Union and NATO level. T4T was also present at the recent summit on the use of artificial intelligence for military purposes (REAIM), organised by the Netherlands and South Korea. File to follow!